Polish up your knowledge

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 March, 2012, 12:00am


There are two 'families' of special-designation sake: junmai (which doesn't have any added alcohol) and honjozo, which is mixed with a small amount of distilled clear alcohol called shochu.

These two families are then categorised by how much the rice is polished - the higher the percentage of rice that's removed, the better the quality, and the more expensive the sake. Usually, on a sake list, if it gives a percentage, it's the amount of rice remaining - so if it says 70 per cent, 30 per cent of the rice has been removed; if it says 30 per cent, 70 per cent has been polished off.

Junmai daiginjo (in the junmai family) and daiginjo (in the honjozo family): a minimum of 50 per cent of the rice has been polished away. These are considered super premium sakes.

Junmai ginjo and ginjo: no more than 60 per cent of the rice is remaining (at least 40 per cent has been polished away). Considered premium sakes.

Regular junmai and honjozo: this category is less rigid, but most producers of high-end sake leave no more than 70 per cent of the rice grain.

Futsuu-shu: ordinary sake, also called table sake. There are no requirements as to how much (if any) of the rice should be polished off. It always has the addition of pure, distilled alcohol, and some have other flavourings. About 80 per cent of all the sake produced in Japan is futsuu-shu.

Nama sake: fresh sake that hasn't been pasteurised to prevent it developing in the bottle. It needs to be refrigerated, and once the bottle is opened it should be consumed in less than two weeks.

Nigori: cloudy sake that's been strained through a rough cloth, without further filtering. The fine sediment settles to the bottom of the bottle, so it needs to be gently shaken before it is poured. Once the bottle is opened, it should be consumed within a week.

Genshu: raw sake. Most sake is diluted with water before it is bottled, giving it an alcohol content of about 16 to 17 per cent (the Japanese government charges a higher tax once the alcohol content is 18 per cent or more). Genshu sake is undiluted, giving it an alcohol content of about 18 per cent, although it can be higher.

Kijoshu: this is a 'very special sake category', says Ayuchi Momose, sake sommelier. Rather than being made of rice, water and yeast, as with other types of sake, the rice and yeast are mixed with the sake before brewing, and the fermentation is halted while there's still residual sugar. The result is much sweeter, and as it ages, it takes on a deep golden hue that's almost the colour of whisky. Because the alcohol added is sake, rather than shochu, it's still considered part of the junmai family, rather than a honjozo sake.

Koshu: sake that's been aged for at least three years.

Arabashiri, shiboritate and hiyaoroshi: spring, summer and autumn sakes, referring to the time of year that they're released. 'This is more for marketing by sake breweries,' Momose explains. 'If sake brewers release all their draft sake at once, they can't sell it quickly enough. So, in order to sell it throughout the year, they have three seasons. Arabashiri comes out in spring - usually in January. It's the 'Beaujolais nouveau' of sake.

Shiboritate comes out in early summer, and then, when it has matured for six months in the fridge before shipping, it's called hiyaoroshi - or autumn. The arabashiri is the most aromatic, the shiboritate becomes quieter and the sweetness is reduced, and with hiyaoroshi it gets a little drier, without fruity or fresh aromas.'